1 April 2019

The unedifying legal battle for a killer’s brain

Psychiatry RedHerring

The forensic business, always a robust affair, can involve scientific experimentation, giant egos, pugnacious dogmatism and courtroom disputes.

In the days before it had the status of a recognised discipline, clashes were no less fraught but there is only one example of a tussle over the brain of an executed murderer – in 19th century Melbourne, of all places.

In the 1863 “battle of the brains”, the main protagonist was one Professor George Halford – leaving aside the hapless individuals who had contributed their tissue.

As the first professor of anatomy at Melbourne University whose pioneering work established the study of anatomy in Australia, Halford had worked in several asylums in England early in his career.

He was strongly opposed to Darwin’s new theory of evolution which had not been widely accepted by the medical profession at that stage.

Christopher Harrison was charged with the murder of his business partner James Marsh at the Roads and Bridges office on 18 June,1864. The pair had a contract to clear a track to the Jordan goldfields in rural Victoria.

Harrison was described as a man aged over 50 with a family and a good reputation. It was not disputed that Marsh had stolen cheques from the business, putting Harrison under pressure from debtors.

The situation caused considerable acrimony. The partnership was dissolved and Marsh required to sign off the papers to settle the matter, which he avoided doing. A meeting was organised to resolve the situation.  Harrison, demonstrating pre-planning, took pistols to the meeting and shot Marsh, later observing that “such a wretch was not fit to live”.

The trial which followed caused a sensation. Because of his erratic behaviour, as well as a suicide attempt (called “self-destruction” at the time) after being arrested, Harrison’s sanity was questioned.

His counsel did not seek acquittal on psychiatric grounds, but instead asked for a manslaughter conviction on the grounds that his client was not insane, but rather so excited that he was not responsible for his actions.

The jury did not take long to find Harrison guilty of a capital offence, but made a strong recommendation for mercy in view of the “unparalleled provocation” he experienced.

At this point, the defence thought they had saved Harrison’s life; the illusion lasted until he stood up and demolished any chance of leniency. He delivered a 15-minute diatribe of extraordinary rapidity and vehemence, defending his actions and abusing Marsh who, he said, got no more than he deserved, the law could not give him any protection and he only obtained satisfaction by shooting him.

He was willing to give up his life and considered himself more sinned against than sinning. Insanity, he said, was a feeble way to express the state of his mind for his brains felt as if they were tearing out of his head.

After that, a capital sentence was inevitable.

While the case was proceeding, Halford took a strong stance that the defendant was innocent on the grounds of insanity. Having acquired a collection of Aboriginal skulls, he was keen to prove his point.

Halford wrote to the newspapers of the day that two close relatives of Harrison had been insane and, with the strong belief in hereditary factors at the time, made it highly likely Harrison would be as well.

This did not go down well with the public who had no sympathy for psychiatric exceptions, and were strongly in favour of Harrison’s execution. Halford’s appeals were supported by a number of doctors but the state governor refused to intervene.

After Harrison was convicted, Halford said he wanted to dissect Harrison’s brain to prove his point.  At the execution, Harrison, and two others, Samuel Wood and William Carver, were led out, each making a speech before ascending the scaffold. Harrison was dignified, accepted his lot and, as he was pinioned, told the sheriff that he wished to make a present of his body to Halford.

The three bodies were inspected to confirm their death by hanging and routine post-mortems done. A Dr Barker, the police medical officer, did the examinations, but, following accepted procedure, arranged for the three brains to go the medical school for their specific gravity (to determine capacity) to be determined by a Dr Macadam.

At this point, the arrangements went awry. The brains instead went to Halford and were taken to the anatomy theatre for dissection before an audience of 30 to 40 eagerly awaiting doctors.

The misrouting of the brains caused consternation with the prison authorities who appealed first to the sheriff, then the attorney-general and, finally, the minister.

There being no precedent for the legal contretemps, it was decided that the physical presence of the sheriff, accompanied by a justice of the peace and a policeman, to regain the purloined items was the best approach.

The examination, scheduled for 3pm, was delayed for 30 minutes. Just as Halford was about to commence the dissection, the room was invaded by the sheriff and six of his officers, as well as the government medical officer, demanding the return of their brains to which Halford did not have any rights.

The sheriff, a sturdy and strapping fellow, had a commanding physical presence to reinforce his demand.

Halford, undeterred, made it clear that he would not relinquish Harrison’s brain without a struggle; the opposition made it clear that he would get just that if he did not surrender the decapitated cranium.

The argument revolved around whether it was the “government’s brain” or whether it had rightfully been bequeathed by the deceased to Halford.

Just as an unprecedented tussle was about to commence, rationality prevailed and a compromise was reached. Halford would dissect Harrison’s brain in the presence of the sheriff and medical officers so all parties would be satisfied.

Harrison’s brain showed a depression of the skull over the right frontal area with thickening of the underlying arachnoid membrane in an area the size of a shilling (That’s a 10c coin in today’s money). It was recalled that Harrison frequently held his hand over that part of the head.

No other pathological changes were evident. Halford, with great regret, had to concede that “there was no direct physiological (i.e., pathological) evidence of insanity”.

Halford was not necessarily wrong. There was gross macroscopic evidence indicating past injury or inflammation.

Later practice would be to allow the brain to solidify in formalin before being sliced and microscopically examined.

The technology of brain study at the time could not take this any further. In view of the family history and aspects of Harrison’s behaviour, this left it an open issue, but there the matter had to be left.

For the newspapers it was nothing less than a field day and they did not hold back on the hyperbole. The Melbourne Age quoted Halford saying, “The brains are mine, Sir”, followed by a disgruntled editorial complaining about mad lawyers, mad doctors and mad politicians, notably the “preposterous Professor Halford” who had been bequeathed Harrison’s brain.

The Argus sniffed that when a man was hanged, he was at rest. In this case, the unfortunate wretch Harrison had been given a punishment 10 times more cruel than was inflicted on any murderer.

So sensational was the story that it got a report in the august Times of London, which did not hold back in describing it as an antipodean farce, nothing better being expected of the colonies.

Halford was to pay a penalty for his mission. Redmond Barry, the theny chancellor of Melbourne University (and the man who condemned Ned Kelly), was outraged at the concept that an executed felon could have any rights to his body and his relationship with Halford never recovered.

What this story tells, if nothing else, is that the interaction of psychiatry and the law, whether in capital cases or not, is destined to be fraught with controversy.

For historians, there is the consolation that the characters involved always make for interesting study.

Robert M Kaplan, who once tried his hand at anatomical pathology, is a forensic psychiatrist and writer after again failing to get into rabbinical school